The brother of a “vibrant and talented” 27-year-old woman who was hacked to death with a hunting knife says that news her murderer could be released from prison next year, despite the sentencing judge’s warning he would “endanger the lives of women indefinitely,” is a “gross miscarriage of justice.”
Michael McGrath, 54, says his family’s lives were decimated when Rachel McGrath, 27, a talented pianist and mortgage advisor, was killed in a brutal knife attack by Nicholas Burton, now 51.
His frenzied onslaught was launched as she waited for her boyfriend in the car park of the Victoria Arms pub in Bramhall, Cheshire, in April 1997.
Within hours of slaying the young woman from Wilmslow, Cheshire, Burton kidnapped a 17-year-old girl, who he held hostage in a terrifying 11-hour ordeal, forcing her to drive to North Wales, before she managed to escape at a petrol station.
Sentencing him to three life sentences at Liverpool Crown Court in April 1998, after he was found guilty of charges of murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and making a threat to kill, judge Mr Justice Morland – who also presided over the trial of James Bulgar’s killers – recommended he should stay in custody indefinitely.
He told Burton: “You showed no sign of pity for your victims or remorse for your terrible deeds.”
He continued: “You were merciless in killing Rachel McGrath. The terror she must have suffered in the last seconds of her life as she vainly struggled to evade the blows from the knife, which you had sharpened, is too awful to imagine.
“I shall recommend that no Home Secretary is ever likely to allow your release.”
It came as a complete shock to Rachel’s elderly father, a retired judge, and her mother when, in March this year, he received a phone call followed by a letter from the Victim Contact Scheme – part of the National Probation Service – informing him that his daughter’s killer will become eligible for parole in May 2022.
Rachel’s mother said: “Any mother whose child has been murdered would want a life sentence to mean life. This is what the trial judge recommended and we do not understand why we are now faced with the prospect of this dreadful man being released.”
Speaking on behalf of his parents, father-of-three Michael, a former lawyer and now a company chairman, based in North Wales, told how their lives have been devastated all over again.
He said: “The prospect of this man being released is a frightening and deeply distressing one. My parents have tried to carry on with their lives as best as they can, but my sister’s murder has destroyed them.”
He continued: “I’ve had to learn to live with it in the way that you learn to live with someone shining a bright light in your eyes. Rachel was 27 when she was killed. Her future – marriage and a family of her own – that was all taken away from her.
“Given the horrific nature of what this man did to my sister, he was given a mandatory life sentence with the judge’s recommendation that he should not be released. We thought that was the end of it and that justice had been done.
“We’ve gone from a very clear recommendation to a watering down of this punishment for reasons we don’t understand.”
He added: “It reopens everything. Those emotions that were there 25 years ago have risen back to the surface.
“The system just seems to be failing people.”
Remembered as a bright pupil at Manchester High School for Girls, Rachel was working at the Halifax Building Society as an assistant manager when she was murdered and her family expected her to soon be engaged to her long-term boyfriend.
Michael said: “We were a very tight-knit family. Dad doted on Rachel, as fathers tend to do, and she was very much my little sister.
“She was very vibrant and outgoing, loved a good party, had lots of friends and was also a fantastically talented musician. She played the piano semi-professionally – we still have her keyboard.
“We all saw each other a lot. Hours before she was killed, we were at my parents’ house together.”
He added: “She was absolutely wonderful. I still carry that with me now and nobody can take that from me.”
Rachel was waiting in the pub car park in her car on the night of Friday, April 25, 1997.
Burton had been drinking in the pub alone, with a sharpened hunting knife and knife sharpener concealed inside his black leather jacket.
Michael said: “It’s really quite sinister.
“We’ve never heard from Burton himself as to what he did and why he did it. We’ve had to piece it all together from the case and the evidence.
“We believe she was sat in the car with the passenger door unlocked expecting her boyfriend to get in.”
He continued: “We think Burton got in and she jumped out, trying to run into the pub. Witnesses heard her screams.
“He has this knife – there’s a struggle and he grabbed her from behind and started stabbing her with this very sharp and long hunting knife.
“Her injuries were horrific. She had 11 or 12 stab wounds. One through her right side which punctured her right lung. One up through the back of her thigh which came out of the front of her leg.”
He added: “To stop her screaming, he hacked through her neck from the front, through her windpipe and right through to her spine at the back of her head.
“He hacked right through her neck, leaving her with a nine-inch-long gash in her throat – which is ultimately what killed her. It’s absolutely horrendous.
“When people talk about stabbings, this was much more than that. It was brutal.”
Woken by the police in the early hours, Michael and his father had to formally identify Rachel’s brutalised body.
Within 30 hours of her murder, armed police apprehended Burton in a hotel room in Bangor, North Wales, on Sunday, April 27, 1997, following his kidnap of the 17-year-old.
They found clothing and the murder weapon – all coated in Rachel’s blood.
Burton’s trial followed in April 1998, where he was found guilty in less than an hour and received three life sentences.
Speaking during the case, Mr Justice Morland told Liverpool Crown Court that a psychiatrist had described Burton as one of the most dangerous men she had ever come across in her career.
The court heard he had also intended to murder the 17-year-old girl he had kidnapped, but she escaped.
Michael, who attended every day of the two-week trial with his parents, said: “We were sitting within 30 feet of this guy.
“He seemed a complete creep – a dropout, a loner. But he was perfectly lucid and very manipulative.
“It was a horrendous experience. We had to steel ourselves and dealt with it, but behind the scenes, it was traumatic and emotional, and we weren’t sleeping.”
But in a shocking twist, after hearing nothing of Burton for 23 years, in March Rachel’s parents were informed that he was to be considered for release.
A letter from the probation service victim liaison officer stated: “The offender becomes Parole Eligible in May of 2022.”
It also stated that, “as part of his treatment, applications can be made by him for escorted/unescorted leave.”
Michael said: “We’re horrified by it. We were asked to put forward the family’s views on his release conditions. It’s very alarming as it seems the decision has been pre-ordained, that he’s coming out.
“Look at what happened with the Colin Pitchfork case and the furore around that.
“What that guy did was just horrendous. My heart goes out to the families because we know exactly what they’re feeling.”
He continued: “We had a very, very experienced trial judge who was there for the whole of that trial and gave a very clear recommendation.
“For some reason, others who weren’t there have made a different decision. How can that be right? What process has been gone through to reach that point?
“My main objective here is to keep Burton inside. but I feel like the system is failing people. We have a duty to say these things.”
Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, September 14, 2021, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts said Rachel’s parents had been told Burton “would walk free next year”.
The Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP said: “My constituent Michael McGrath is battling for justice for his family.
“The trial judge described Burton as merciless and manipulative and recommended that no home secretary – as the arrangement was at the time – would ever be likely to allow his release.”
She continued: “Rachel’s elderly parents were recently told that Burton would walk free next year. They haven’t even been able to make a victim statement and believe the correct procedure has not been followed.
“Will he agree, please, to a ministerial meeting with the family to help ensure that they have all the information they need, that their voice is heard, and it is respected?”
Prisons and probation minister Alex Chalk thanked the MP for raising the “extremely sensitive, distressing and, frankly, appalling” case and said he would be “delighted to meet”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said Burton’s release “can only be directed by the Parole Board after he has served the minimum 25-year term which ends next year”.
“Even at that stage, it is by no means certain that they will do so,” he added.
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